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An evolutionary approach to understanding international business activity: The co-evolution of MNEs and the institutional environment


  • John Cantwell

    (Department of Management & Global Business, Rutgers Business School, Rutgers University, Newark, USA)

  • John H Dunning

    (Department of Economics, University of Reading, Reading, UK)

  • Sarianna M Lundan

    (Department of Organization and Strategy, School of Business and Economics, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands)


This paper examines the co-evolution of MNE activities and institutions external and internal to the firm. We develop a theoretical framework for this analysis that draws on the more recent writings of Douglass North on institutions as a response to complex forms of uncertainty associated with the rise in global economic interconnectedness, and of Richard Nelson on the co-evolution of technology and institutions. We link historical changes in the character of MNE activities to changes in the institutional environment, and highlight the scope for firm-level creativity and institutional entrepreneurship that may lead to co-evolution with the environment. We argue that the main drivers for institutional entrepreneurship are now found in the increasing autonomy of MNE subsidiaries. Thus MNE agency derives from more decentralized forms of experimentation in international corporate networks, which competence-creating nodes of new initiatives can co-evolve with local institutions. Unlike most other streams of related literature, our approach connects patterns of institutional change in wider business systems with more micro processes of variety generation and experimentation within and across individual firms. This form of co-evolutionary analysis is increasingly important to understanding the interrelationships between MNE activities and public policy.

Suggested Citation

  • John Cantwell & John H Dunning & Sarianna M Lundan, 2010. "An evolutionary approach to understanding international business activity: The co-evolution of MNEs and the institutional environment," Journal of International Business Studies, Palgrave Macmillan;Academy of International Business, vol. 41(4), pages 567-586, May.
  • Handle: RePEc:pal:jintbs:v:41:y:2010:i:4:p:567-586

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